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Searching For the Sugar Man

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Searching For Sugar Man tells the incredible true story of Rodriguez, the greatest 70s Rock icon who never was. After being discovered in a Detroit bar. Rodriguez's sound struck 2 renowned producers and they signed a record deal. But when the album bombed, the singer disappeared into obscurity. A bootleg recording found it's way into apartheid South Africa and over the next two decades , he became a phenomenon. The film follows the story of two South African fans who set out to find out what really happened to their hero.

Searching For Sugar Man: myth-making at its best?

By Rebecca L. Stewart

Pushed as one of the serious contenders for best documentary Oscar this year, Searching for Sugar Man is the story of the folk music hero that never was; a rags-to-rags fable of one the most original voices of the sixties and seventies reduced to laboring on building sites. Sixto Rodriguez: a major star and hero in South Africa (unbeknownst to him), a man so mysterious he was rumoured to have self-immolated on stage. What happened to him? If only two music geeks would hunt him down and resurrect him from the ashes!

Like many who enjoyed Sugar Man I raced to Guitar Tabs online to learn some of his beautiful, intriguing chords, and skedaddled to the record store to buy his only two albums. But I am not a serious music lover with a degree in one-upmanship. I am not an investigative journalist. I am, however, a fan of something known as ‘the world wide web’, and another thing known as ‘the independent music store’, and after a bit of minor digging I found that Sugar Man raises more questions than it answers.

The myth begins with two record producers from Sussex Records discovering Rodriguez in a dingy Detroit bar in 1969. The soulful folk/blues performer is too shy to face his audience, but the producers see enough of Dylan in him to help record his first album Cold Fact, which instantly flops in the States. The second, Coming From Reality in 1971 does the same, and Rodriguez is dropped from the label to fade into obscurity. In the meantime, Cold Fact gets picked up in South Africa (at that time politically and culturally isolated by a worldwide trade embargo), spread via word-of-mouth and pirated copies. With little information getting in or out of the country and rumours abounding, many South African fans believe their hero, as ubiquitous in any music collection as the Beatles, to be dead.

Sugar Man’s Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul picks up the tale here, following journo Craig Bartholomew Strydom and music store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman on their quest to find out what happened. The film follows all the archetypal phases of the mythic journey – from the call to adventure, crossing the threshold, descent to the underworld and ultimately the resurrection – to Sugar Man’s emotional conclusion, his ‘comeback’ concert in Cape Town in 1998. To all the family, friends and fans involved, it’s a fitting denouement.

While people seldom let the truth get in the way of a good story, this nearly universally acclaimed ‘documentary’ seems to have well and truly blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

The main puzzle Sugar Man doesn’t solve is record sales. Why don’t we find out why Rodriguez or his record companies didn’t know about the astounding sales or megastar status enjoyed in South Africa for years and years? Was it a genuine oversight (of the sort that happens to many back catalogues) after Sussex Records was dissolved? Or was it something more? According to interviews with the director, many factors contributed to this curious lapse, and he’s overtly stated “the story really isn’t about money.” The missing record sales and Rodriguez’ innocence of his worldwide fame is, however, the central premise of the documentary. Beyond asking Sussex Records’ Clarence Avant (who conveniently brushes it aside), more scientific prospecting could have revealed some gold.

Despite all the lonely images of him walking Detroit’s snow-blasted streets, it transpires that Rodriguez performed quite regularly through the years. He was also a huge star in Australia, touring regularly and going five times platinum at a time when, according to the doco, the trail went cold. Fans in other southern African countries and New Zealand weren’t exactly indifferent to him either.

He toured Australia in 1979, 1981, 2007 and beyond, with the Mark Gillespie Band and Midnight Oil, and for the East Coast Blues & Roots Festival. Local label Blue Goose Music released a bunch of his music in the mid-‘70s, and based on his Aussie performances, they also released the album Alive (the title a play on his rumoured death). The song ‘Sugar Man’ featured